While Congress delays, defense contractors fret

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It’s four months into the fiscal year, and Congress has not passed the defense budget.

That inaction has CEOs of the major defense companies, many of which have offices and employees in Colorado Springs, a little nervous. The Department of Defense is operating at 2010 budget levels, which bans starting new programs and limits production on current contracts.

CEOs from Lockheed Martin and Boeing, both of which have thousands of employees here, sent a letter to Congress last week, complaining of lasting effects to their business. About a dozen defense executives signed the letter.

“Failure to address funding decisions for individual national security programs on a full-year basis will lead to program dislocations, funding interruptions, and adverse consequences on U.S. employment … for many years to come,” the industry executives wrote.

Robert Stevens, CEO of Lockheed, said the defense industry will face higher costs unless the 2011 appropriations bill is based.

The Pentagon — and the rest of the federal government — are operating under a stopgap measure that keeps funding at 2010 levels. Continued congressional inaction means the Defense Department loses about $23 billion in funding for the fiscal year, which runs through the end of September.

There have been other adverse effects of Congress’s refusal to pass the 2011 budget: NASA has been forced to keep the Orion project, a rocket it says it does not want. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is delaying launching two weather satellites.

The Defense Department accounts for 19 percent of the nation’s budget.

While companies are waiting for budget approval, defense officials are warning against further large-scale consolidation within the defense industry, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In remarks made earlier this week, Ashton Carter, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, signaled that the Pentagon is “not likely to support further consolidation of our principal weapons-systems prime contractors.”

The DoD is concerned that more consolidation will be higher prices for major weapons systems. Of its $700 billion annual budget, about $400 billion is spent on contracts every year.

NASA visits Colorado

Top officials from NASA met with state entrepreneurs to discuss innovations in space exploration and technology development.

Lori Garver, deputy administer of the space agency, also toured Sierra Nevada Corp., a Boulder company that is developing technologies for space exploration. It is currently building a vehicle to provide crew transport into the low Earth orbit.

“It’s a pleasure to see commercial space making rapid progress in Colorado,” Garver said. “As NASA becomes more nimble, companies like Sierra Nevada and others will help the U.S. out-innovate, out-educate and out-build any competitor in the world.”

NASA is focusing on developing technology to reach destinations in the far corners of the solar system, and it’s encouraging the private sector to help create the vehicles to get there.

NASA also plans to continue human space flight to the International Space Station, and foster a growing commercial space industry to create jobs.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 requires the agency to pursue commercial access to space and extend the life of the space station to at least 2020.

Colorado company helps find first Earth-size planet

Ball Aerospace, a Colorado company, built the spacecraft that just discovered the first Earth-size planets in a habitable zone — a region where water could exist on a planet’s surface.

Known as the Kepler mission, NASA found five potential planets that are close to the same size as Earth and that orbit in the zone of smaller, cooler stars than the sun.

Ball Aerospace built the Kepler photometer and spacecraft, as well as managing the system integration and testing for the mission.

“In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today’s reality,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“The historic milestones Kepler makes with each new discovery will determine the course of every exoplanet mission to follow,” said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Exoplanet is space talk for an extrasolar planet — a planet outside the Solar System.

Kepler, a space telescope, looks for planet signatures by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars caused by planets crossing in front of them.

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest the spacecraft finds.

Amy Gillentine can be reached at amy.gillentine@csbj.com or at 719-329-5205. Friend her on Facebook.